He was an indisputably bright toddler, a whiz at memorization, and an ace at building intricate Lego structures. But when Hopper started trying to learn letters, he was baffled. And so were his parents.
How could he not know that a B is a B? wondered his mom, Kasi Strauchler. The confusion continued through preschool, and by kindergarten, it was obvious something wasn’t right.
Parents, teachers, and especially Hopper were frustrated by his lack of progress, until a battery of tests indicated that Hopper, now a fifth grader at Jackson Davis Elementary School in Henrico County, had dyslexia.
But the diagnosis is just the first step. Finding a way to deal with dyslexia, as the Strauchlers learned, is a lifelong journey.
What is Dyslexia?
According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a learning disability that is neurological in origin (brain scans can detect it), characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.
In the most basic terms, there is a weakness in the part of the brain responsible for decoding written language. The result can be problems with reading comprehension and a reduced reading experience, which means impeded growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. In effect, dyslexic brains just aren’t hard-wired for reading.
“There are so many degrees of dyslexia,” explained Carolyn Myers, M Ed, a nationally certified educational diagnostician who practices in the Richmond area. “The milder forms, unfortunately, are the more invisible types.”
Dyslexia is not an intellectual disability. It often runs in families and it never goes away.
Bright students, like Hopper, can generally stay on grade level and hide the extent of the disability to teachers, though they can be frustrated when they see other students progressing faster.
After Hopper’s experience, his parents were able to catch younger sister Lucy’s dyslexia early. But, said Strauchler, even with the diagnosis, there still is stress and plenty of tears as her daughter works to keep up with classmates.
Some with dyslexia are profoundly gifted (including Sir Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, Agatha Christie and, some speculate, Albert Einstein) and often have been called visionaries or said to have had a clearer view of the big picture than peers. Many have other learning disabilities such as ADHD, which can add to the frustration.
Getting a Diagnosis
While there’s no universally accepted estimate of the number of people with dyslexia, figures range from five to 20 percent of the population.
Julie Wingfield, head of school at the Riverside School in Bon Air, which specializes in teaching students with dyslexia and language challenges, advises parents to trust their gut instinct when it comes to their child’s language and communications skills.
“So often, someone tells you to wait a year and see what happens,” she noted.
According to Wingfield, parents may be advised to read to their children more – a great idea – but it won’t help remediate dyslexia. those who suspect their child isn’t progressing should seek testing as soon as possible, Wingfield said.
“Anyone, including parents, can request an evaluation for special education services at any time from the time the child is two years old,” said Scottie Alley, a special education attorney in the Office of Dispute Resolution and Administrative Services Division of Special Education and Student Services for the Virginia Department of Education.
Many educators and parents also recommend independent testing to pinpoint specific learning deficiencies.
And catching up
A correct diagnosis of the exact processing difficulty is essential, but there is no quick fix for dyslexia. it’s almost like rewiring the brain, usually requiring several months to several years to catch up and master a learning strategy.
Hopper received special help at Jackson Davis and his parents supplemented his classes with private tutoring. He’s now on grade level and looking forward to middle school. But at $40 to $60 an hour, private tutors are beyond the reach of some families and aren’t enough for many children. this puts the burden back on parents and schools.
Even though dyslexia can hinder a student’s learning, it is not by itself recognized as a disability, said Alley. “Dyslexia is not one of the 13 disabilities categories recognized by the 2009 regulations governing special Education Programs for Children with Disabilities in Virginia [Virginia regulations],” she said.
“However, dyslexia is subsumed in the specific learning disability category,” Alley continues, “defined as ‘a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.’”
The result, in plain-speak, means that a student with dyslexia does not necessarily require special education. And if so, schools must provide appropriate accommodations, not necessarily the best accommodations. some students may get an iEP (individualized Education Plan) or 504 Plan (named for section 504 of the 1973 rehabilitation Act that protects people with disabilities) and special services.
Finding support isn’t always easy and some families feel overwhelmed or isolated. to cope, parents, teachers, and administrators stress the importance of learning more about dyslexia and becoming an advocate for the child.
There are numerous books about dyslexia; one frequently recommended is sally shaywitz’s Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. Web sites such as vbida.org and wrightslaw.org can be excellent sources of information.
Recent neurological findings have helped further define dyslexia. With this scientific backing, Riverside School’s Wingfield believes change is needed at the federal level, and should begin with the opportunity for identifying the disorder before a child begins school. From there, policy change, she hopes, will enable more teachers – and parents – to be equipped to deal with dyslexia.
“There is great hope for our kids. Change is coming.
More About Dyslexia
Did you know there is no evidence to suggest that people with dyslexia see letters differently than others do? The cause has to do with a disconnect in processing sounds – as opposed to visual information. Also, this is kind of interesting: While it was once held that boys were more likely than girls to have dyslexia, research has show that this does not appear to be the case. Boys are typically diagnosed with dyslexia earlier than girls because of a tendency to act out as a result of working through reading struggles. Girls, on the other hand, try to hide their difficulty, and often become more quiet and reserved in the classroom. Looking for some warning signs? Does your child have difficulty…
• Pronouncing words, or does he reverse or substitute parts of words?
• Following a sequence of directions?
• Stating thoughts in an organized way?
• Ordering of letters in words?
• Recognizing previously learned words?
• Using traditional spellings for words?
• Comprehending what he reads?
• Remembering what was read?
• Distinguishing important details from unimportant details?